Last Monday, I watched the crossing guard at the intersection of 47th and Springfield. As with every school day, she stood by the crosswalk ready to keep children safe from speeding cars. There she was with her bright vest, whistle, and stop sign. And there were no children. No one to guard as she kept her lonely vigil. Later in the day, a bus normally filled with employees of the University of Pennsylvania went by that same intersection. The bus was empty, transporting workers who had not left their homes. The bustling bars and cafes on Baltimore Avenue are shuttered just when they should be putting out their sidewalk seating. Rush hour now consists of empty trolley cars; I find myself missing the angry honking of Philadelphians. My parish, St. Francis de Sales, is empty. On Sunday the twenty-five-person choir is at home, the French organ is silent, the ushers have no one to usher, and the pews are bereft. On the sidewalks, people warily pass each other; friends greet each other from a six-foot distance with an awkward wave. And we are all haunted by the knowledge that in hospitals and homes, people are suffering and dying.
Living during a pestilence is living through the experience of the uncanny. The word for uncanny in German is unheimlichkeit. It means not-being-at-home. It doesn’t refer to the experience of being away from home, though. What makes this emotion so disorienting, though, is that one feels not-at-home precisely when one is at home. The ordinary is still there but is just a little off. One feels alienated by the regular. Watching a crossing guard with no one to guard is an experience of the uncanny, of suddenly being estranged by the place that used to make you familiar.
The uncanniness creeps into your house. My home feels less homey; it is the same place but somehow not. In the daytime, it has become an office building: a program coordinator plans programs that won’t happen, an attorney meets with clients on a screen, a housing advocate campaigns for access to homes he cannot visit. I remain at my desk writing or, more often, failing to write. Later I teach a class via video; an experience of an ersatz version of education and connection. My building is an office space, my apartment a classroom. I am homebound in two senses: bound to my home but also not at home and so constantly homeward bound. We are stuck in houses feeling not-at-home.
Perhaps in this Lent – which not only features no alleluias but also no Stations of the Cross at my parish – will be a lesson in being not-at-home. This beautiful world is our pilgrimage because we live here as homo viator, man on the way. We don’t neglect the world; rather, we are to tend to it as our shared path. In the wilderness, people speak of being “keepers of the trail.” We tend to the trail not because it is our home but because we all travel that path. This is wisdom for our whole life. We need to tend to our paths through this world. As Walker Percy puts it, our vocation is to hand each other along.
We sing despite this anxious feeling of not being at home, because for now our home is the road, until someday our home will be in God’s home.
Perhaps the coronavirus is a reminder that we are on our way together, that undergoing the uncanny speaks to a truth about our life. We are both at home in this world and not at home. Augustine preached often about being on pilgrimage. In a homily for Easter, he told his congregants that when we sing our alleluias here, we sing as wayfarers while our brothers and sisters in heaven sing as those at home. “God praised there; and God praised here. Here by the anxious, there by the carefree . . . here on the way, there at home.” During this Lent and Easter, our sense of not-being-at-home will deepen. It will deepen precisely because we are affixed to our houses that have become our offices. What we are learning is that we must keep traveling in this life to our true home. The psalmist proclaims: “I was glad when they said to me, ‘Let us go to the house of the Lord!’” It is his house that is our true home.
Watching the YouTube clips of Italians singing out of their windows, I think again of Augustine, who tells us to sing “in the way wayfarers are in the habit of singing, sing but keep walking.” Hard labor is lightened by singing, even if that hard labor is being under lockdown. For Augustine, we sing for our true home when we “progress in goodness, in the right faith, in good habits.” We sing when we travel down this weary way towards goodness and when we help each along this way.
We may be trapped in our homes this Lent and Easter and beyond – during this beautiful and haunting springtide. We have to live through the uncanniness of this season of pestilence. We sing despite this anxious feeling of not being at home, because for now our home is the road, until someday our home will be in God’s home. Our task is to keep on the path and to help others on the path. Our task during the uncanny is to sing and to keep walking homeward.